Red Riding Hood spends another night in woods

Last weekend I happened to be in the checkout line at Target when the clerk asked me if I was doing anything interesting this weekend. He was very young and just making polite conversation, but I smiled and told him I was going howling for wolves.

He stopped and looked at me for a moment and then asked if it was a full moon that night. His response made me laugh.

I told him it was actually the way the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) keeps track of the number and location of wolves in the state and that it didn’t have as much to do with the phase of the moon as it did with the weather and the temperature. I told him wolves are a lot like people, when the conditions aren’t very favorable, they don’t do much.

I smiled all the way to the car from that amusing interaction. Excited with anticipation for the evening’s activity, it seemed to take forever for 6:30 p.m. to arrive – but arrive it did. Ray had warned me to bring my rain boots, just in case it was mucky out there.

I also had packed some warmer clothes, because the low for the evening was forecast at 45 degrees, and I wasn’t sure how cold that was going to feel out in the middle of the forest, in the middle of the night.

Before we even left my driveway, Ray was explaining that our survey was going to be a lot different than the last time we went. He pulled out some equipment from the back of his truck, which turned out to be a recording device. He explained that he wanted me to record some of the howling we might hear.

Cool, I thought, how nice to have a souvenir of our adventure. We grabbed sandwiches from a local sandwich shop to eat later on, and Ray kidded that we should get venison to improve our chances with the wolves.

We headed west again, this time to public lands in Clark County, driving into the setting sun. We ended up on a very long and very straight dirt road, and drove until twilight.

When we stopped, Ray pulled out a small box with many buttons. He had me plug it into the dashboard and set it on the toolbox in the bed of his truck. The digital readout on the front was set to a frequency that was listed on the side of the box, a frequency set to the radio collar of a female wolf he was hoping to locate.

He pulled out what looked exactly like an old TV antenna, and plugged that into the box as well. As he aimed it out in the direction north of the road and panned, I could hear a very faint chirp. Ray had me put headphones on to be sure of what we were hearing and from which direction it was coming from.

That was definitely her, but she was very far away. He decided to try to get closer on another road to see if we could hear her collar better there.

We drove a little way down the road to try again. As we quietly got out of the car, we heard something and stopped. The wolves were already howling! Somewhere off to the left side of the road, two adults were calling out, and a few minutes later, off the right side of the road, an enthusiastic family of wolves were answering.

It was delightful to hear the conversation taking place. The pups sound a bit different, making more of a yelping and squealing than a howl. This time of year, Ray explained, is when the pups are about 40 pounds and very hungry. When they hear howling, they get excited because sometimes it means that mom and dad are coming back with food to eat.

When the howling stopped, I turned around to see Ray with a big smile on his face. “Is that your first howling experience?” he asked. All jokes aside, I said yes, yes it was. I would like to think it’s the first of many.

I could get used to this stuff – driving around the woods at night, trying to connect with a wild animal and coming back in one piece? The fact that not many get the opportunity to do so certainly makes it appealing. Not to mention all the other cool things we see and hear during a night out – it’s really my idea of a good time.

Apparently I was unanimously elected to be the statistician for the evening. Not just of the wolf’s responses, but also of where we were in the forest and where we stopped to howl. Ray would call out the road, the direction and the mileage points as we were driving and I would attempt to scribe them legibly onto the legal pad.

We also documented the weather, cloud coverage, temperature and moon phase. Waxing gibbous – 93 percent, for you nerds out there.

I lost track of the number of stops, but filled up about three pages of legal pad with stats of where we were in the woods, and what happened at each stop. We heard howling about 20 percent of the time, but unfortunately it wasn’t when we had the recording stuff ready. It was almost like the wolves knew.

One location was so close to the highway that even though a wolf howled back in response, it was hard to hear over the sound of the very few cars that were going by. Ray decided that we would come back at the end of the night and try that location again when there was less traffic.

At one point we stopped near a clearing and Ray walked into it while I went at a right angle away from it, per his directions. You won’t find me wandering off in the woods at night. I’m much more prone to suggestion when it’s dark and scary at the end of a dirt road. Remember those stories about the guy with the hook hand? Yeah, me too.

Ray did his usual set of howls at this spot but I heard nothing in response, save for an owl hooting off in the distance. I find that even though it’s dark, if I close my eyes, I can concentrate better and focus on what I am hearing and where it is coming from. Still, I heard nothing.

As we met back at the truck, Ray asked if I had heard the wolf nearby whimper when he howled. I did not, and he told me that about 20 feet in front of him there was a wolf in the brush that was actually still there. This was freaking me out just a little, to know that a wolf was so near in proximity to where we had just been standing and I had no idea.

After trying a few more spots, getting responses only from dogs, ducks and a gaggle of geese, we headed back to the highway spot to try and get that last wolf to howl. We walked a short distance up and over a hill on a very dark road that was covered with trees. There was hardly any moonlight at all, and this time I had brought the recording equipment.

Ray had me wait at the top of the hill while he walked along a few more yards. In the strange contrast of half-light from the moon, I wasn’t exactly sure where he was until he began to howl.

It’s funny how the sounds in the woods change the space around you. The space feels one way when it’s dead silent, different when something starts to sing, chirp or hoot, and yet another way as soon as the howling starts, regardless if it’s man-made or not. Sound can actually help define the space you can’t see, in the dark, in the woods. I find that pretty fascinating.

And then it happened. Somewhere out in the darkness, Ray let go with the final howl of the night. Almost as soon as he stopped, the wolf we had been listening for answered back – a long, low, belligerent howl, Ray would say later. He wasn’t happy we were there.

I hit the record button immediately. Then to my surprise, another wolf joined in, and another. It sounded like three adults to my inexperienced ears, and then off to the left a family joined in the ruckus. More adults, and some yelps and squeals from the pups.

They went back and forth for a bit, and I turned toward each howl to get the best sound on the recording. After about a minute and a half, the baying died down and the woods were silent again.

I pushed the stop button as Ray came sauntering up over the hill, obviously very pleased with the evenings’ results. As he approached me, I could see a big smile on his face as he raised his hand for a silent high five.

It was about two in the morning, and he quietly explained that we should head quickly back to the truck now, because the wolves will be coming over to see just who was coming to call.

Originally published September 12, 2014
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